Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Renee So: Idols

Iconography and irony alternate for attention in the sculptural and wall work show by Colombo-born Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Hong Kong born Renee So. Both artists draw on art history in their explorations of idolatory and mythology, but they had not met before the Perth Festival teamed the pair for a joint show at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Head with many piercings #2, 2017, earthenware, glaze, lustre, 101 x 53 x 45cm. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Singapore and Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia

Nithiyendran, who lives and works in Sydney, is drawing on Hindu (his father) and Christian (his Catholic mother) heritages with his ‘rough-edged, vibrant, new-age sculptures,’ as well as the internet and fashion, with liberal phalluses and other touches of eroticism, and additions such as polystyrene heads and plastic toys.

So was raised in Melbourne and has been living and working in London since 2005. She is known for her considered irony in her stoneware sculptures and knitted portraits depicting what the Guardian described as a ‘lovely gang of odd bods’.

Perth Festival visual arts programming associate Felicity Fenner says, the impetus to show the two artists together is their shared ‘tongue-in-cheek approach to traditional, especially figurative, sculpture.’

Nithiyendran’s parents were Tamil refugees who came to Australia when he was aged one, but the artist cautions: ‘I don’t believe my work reflects a refugee experience. In fact, I would see that as quite a parochial lens to apply to it.’ So, who studied fine art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, credits the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, which had limited non-European immigration, for the opportunity.

‘I came to Australia in 1975 with my mum when I was 10 months old,’ So recalls. ‘Mum was visiting her sister and brother-in-law in Melbourne when the previously strict immigration laws were dismantled by the Whitlam government. So she applied to stay with the support of her sister and we ended up never going back to Hong Kong. Quite unplanned.’

Renee So, Woman II, 2017, stoneware. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Kate MacGarry, London and Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia

So’s work, which Perth Festival visual arts colleague Anne Loxley brought to Fenner’s attention, refers to the history of art, craft and design, and the artist has said that being London-based, for 13 years now, has given her life-changing access to a broad scope of museums through Europe.

So discovered Bartmann or Bellarmine stoneware at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which she has employed in sculptures depicting both men and women. ‘She’s doing this parody of the male in art history,’ says Fenner ‘they’re bearded men’s faces in this pot shape.’ Like Nithiyendran’s works, she’s saying something interesting about masculinity and art history, but they’re funny as well.

‘Both artists have got an ironic sense of humour, with a very fresh take on art history, and looking at the sexualised imagery of women, and applying it to men.’

The exhibition will be installed with pieces by Nithiyendran and So intermingled, rather than treated as two separate artists’ shows. ‘There’s a kind of a face-off, says Fenner. ‘Ramesh’s big, colourful, crazy sculptures with Renee’s very refined, monotoned ceramic pieces.’

Fenner has known Nithiyendran for several years as a colleague at the University of NSW’s Faculty of Art and Design. ‘I’ve seen his work evolve and he’s now lecturing there and going great guns in terms of exhibiting, says Fenner. ‘His work is refreshingly robust. There are penises everywhere, which is sort of funny because we live in a male-dominated, what he refers to as a phallocentric world. Yet we don’t see many pictures of penises around the place.

‘Historically we’ve been very comfortable to look at nude women in art for hundreds of years. We may see pictures of men in the homoerotic gay scene but not in everyday media and everyday art. He’s looking at the irony of that and taking it to its logical extension.’

But Nithiyendran is not just sculpting penises for their own sake. Fenner says ‘It’s much more than that. Just doing figurative ceramics ironically is out there. I know lots of people are doing ceramics because of the Grayson Perry factor winning the Turner Prize in 2003 and there’s been a renewed interest in ceramics, but not many people are doing figurative figures. That’s not mainstream at all. We’re not seeing this reference back to history in other artists’ work.’

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer across the visual arts, theatre, film and television.

Fremantle Arts Centre
7 February to 24 March, 2019
Western Australia